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Ethnomusicology Scholarship and Teaching - “The Song Is You”: From External to Internal in Ethnomusicological Performance

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In this article I examine the developing role performance has played in ethnomusicological research and teaching from the early days of our field until the present. Until well into the 1950s ethnomusicologists primarily concerned themselves with collecting, archiving, and analyzing data. Positivist and objectivist research philosophies, as well as colonialist attitudes (for some) about their human subjects militated against extensive personal apprenticeships and performance involvement in exotic musical cultures. Beginning in the 1950s ethnomusicologists increasingly recognized the utility of such study and performance as research tools. Later, the growing interest in and recognition of researchers’ complicity in ethnographic interpretation led to an interest in traditional musical study, teaching, and performing as virtuous and useful activities in and of themselves. We have ultimately come to acknowledge that, as we present and perform these traditions in new contexts, we also present and perform ourselves.


“The music is sweet, the words are true, the song is you”

Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II


Through the title of this article I posit a continuum in how ethnomusicologists approach, and have approached the idea of performing musics they study. Most ethnomusicologists find themselves at neither extreme of this continuum. In this article I examine the roles such performance has played in ethnomusicological research and teaching from the early days of our field.

The general idea of performing music and dance of other cultures is more easily grasped, and more readily capture the imagination of those who are not very familiar with ethnomusicology, than other more conventionally “academic” aspects of our field. Many make the rather benevolent mistake of thinking that it is the crux of what we do. I have more than once, after answering a question about what I do for a living, gotten, in response: “You’re an ethnomusicologist? Wow, that must be great, playing all that fun stuff!” Sure, it’s fun—boy, is it fun!—but what these folks could not know, and would be quite surprised to hear, is what a small part, in fact, performing has played during much of the early history of our exciting and absorbing field.

During the relatively short life span of the field of ethnomusicology, performance has assumed an increasingly vital role, and few now question its utility or validity. The part it plays, however, varies widely according to employment context and the individual orientations of ethnomusicologists. It is my contention that, while remaining relatively peripheral to the concerns of many contemporary ethnomusicologists whose research does not directly lend itself to performance, it has moved from an adjunct, somewhat “external” field research methodology to an increasingly central role in the missions of many others, and that, moreover, it has become an increasingly personal, “internal” assertion. It has, in fact, become for many ethnomusicologists an end in and of itself.

I admit that questions about “appropriation” and “ownership” of musical traditions now concern me much less than they did when I began my graduate studies in ethnomusicology (see Nettl 2005b, passim, for a rich discussion of these matters). Like Anne Rasmussen, I believe that “once you give … music away, you cannot control what people do with it” (2004, 226). I am also comforted by the words of Hardja Susilo, dean of “native” artists-in-residence, brought to UCLA by Mantle Hood in 1958 to teach Javanese gamelan and dance. He responded to my query as to whether he ever thought, like many others, about “the idea of appropriation. The idea that we’re colonizing—appropriating—by what right are we doing these kinds of things?” He answered

I am frankly honored that you guys are studying the gamelan, that you think it is a worthy subject. A lot of Indonesians don’t think so, you know. So, appropriate all you want. You see, it isn’t like “if you take it then I don’t have it anymore.” This is a case where if you take it then we have two, you see. (Susilo 2004, 66)

This seems as good a point as any on which to leave this particular eminently losable, but never “winnable” line of discussion, which (to my mind) terminates in a tar pit.

Positivist/Objectivist Ethnomusicological Research

One might think that it is counterintuitive to say that performance in ethnomusicology or any other area of music was not central, or at least important. The early history of our field, however, reveals very little attention to performance. We of course find many references to the performances of “natives.” The farther back we look, the more we see scholars concentrate on product, rather than style and performance practice. Even when discussing details they could have only elicited through personal study, they reveal little about themselves.

Since many of the pioneers of what came to be called “ethnomusicology” were themselves trained in historical musicology, they employed the objectivist, dualistic views so characteristic of that discipline, influenced by philological models emphasizing text (or score) analysis. They were more interested in collecting tangible products than in the temporal, real-time, variable realizations of those products. Maintaining a soi-disant objectivity was of great importance to them; one of many pursuing the cachet of a hard science, Alan P. Merriam claimed that “the ethnomusicologist is, in effect, sciencing about music” (1964, 25). Such a quest for objectivity is, in Clifford’s words, like a quest for an “Archimedean point from which to represent the world” (1985, 22).

Moreover, the pervading colonial mind set, whether imperial—most of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific consisted of subject peoples—or the internal-national type, in which despised, marginalized and/or patronized aboriginal groups served as “internal colonials”—created a sociocultural barrier which most investigators of the time could not conceive of breaching. Cooley and Barz, in the sweeping introduction to their vital volume Shadows in the Field, encapsulate this socio-political context:

The asymetrical relationship of fieldwork in colonial contexts make it unlikely that a fieldworker would understand or even be interested in, for example, the inner life or an Indian or Chinese musician. Asymetrical relationships may have excluded the possibility of [early observers/scholars] Amiot or Jones submitting themselves as apprentices to master musicians. (Barz and Cooley 2008, 7)

As Nettl states, “The learning of music is almost everywhere an experience of intense relationship between student and teacher” (2005, 396). This relationship is all the more intense for ethnomusicologists by virtue of the frequently tortuous ways they have sought out, tried to evaluate, contact, and come to be accepted by teachers in places where they have been obliged to establish themselves for field research. Ethnomusicologists, more than most academics, have come to identify themselves with their teachers/informants and their cultural contexts.

Some have been willing or eager to create traditional links with formalized reciprocal expectations, such as within the Japanese ryu system, Hindustani gharana and ustad/sagird (guru/sisya) relationship (Kippen 2008; Slawek 2004), or initiation into Santería/Regla de Ocha (Hagedorn 2001, 2002). Many others experience expectations that in return for entrée into the teacher’s world, they promote that teacher’s prestige (Nettl 2014, CMS “2nd Thoughts”) or that of the lineage, or help enhance their careers (Locke 2004, 172).

In my introduction to Performing Ethnomusicology (as it is the only volume to date exclusively about performance in ethnomusicology, I hope readers will forgive my many references to its contributors) I stated that

In the field, our friends and research collaborators have unselfishly given us gifts we know we cannot repay; we know that whatever fees or presents or help we offered in exchange were nothing compared to the worlds revealed to us. Thus we labor mightily to engage our students and to convey at least something of what we felt and feel, re-creating the field a little at each rehearsal. (Solis 2004b, 17)

To enter such relationships, referring to those one interviewed, observed, or recorded as “our teachers in the field” (Nettl 2013) or our “research collaborators,” and other such terms purporting to eliminate social distance, as ethnomusicologists have come to do in recent years, would have been unthinkable for the ethnomusicological pioneers. To record, interview, and analyze results is one thing; placing oneself in the hands of another in the way one does with a formal teacher, is quite something else: it is a reversal of power dynamics that would have been out of the question for most. Creative and vital bouleversements of this sort lay, for the most part, far in the future.

Performance in Field Research Analysis

In the 1940s and 50s performance began to manifest itself, first as a tool of analysis. Many researchers over the years had no doubt—whether out of curiosity, a sense of adventure, or through the realization that a personal knowledge of performance practice would help their analysis—taken lessons in the traditions they investigated. However, the first actual personal acknowledgement of this technique in a scholarly publication may be George Herzog’s, in his 1945 article “Drum Signaling in an African Tribe”:

Signal-drumming is considered difficult by the natives. In the course of the study, I learned how to play every signal, first on one drum, then on two, wrote them down in notation, and recorded them also acoustically—accomplishments equally astounding to the natives, although the finer points of variation and ornamentation were not mastered. (Herzog 1945, 221)

I consider this self-situation aspect crucial, in that it is an important step toward the sort of reflexivity much later characteristic of ethnomusicology and other social sciences. Paul Berliner’s monograph The Soul of Mbira (1981) was a landmark in, among other things, the acknowledgement of the teacher-student relationship in determining how one emerged as scholar/performer. The “Archimedean approach,” however, still obtained in the 1950s. Note Willam P. Malm’s 1958 description of Japanese ko tzuzumi technique:

One [of the strokes] is pon, played in the center strongly with the ropes loose; at the moment of impact, or just before or after (depending on the school of drumming), the ropes are squeezed so that the tone wavers in a lovely liquid manner …. A lighter blow to the center of the drum with one finger and the ropes loose is called pu. A light blow to the edge with the ropes tense is chi, and a strong blow to the edge with maximum tension is called ta. The sounds of the ko tsuzumi are easier to describe than to produce. (Malm 1958, 89)

Such detailed and nuanced descriptions of technique, and the evaluative last sentence, are scarcely possible without personal experience, and depart from much of the positivist, product-oriented writing of the fifties and earlier. Throughout the article, nevertheless, the author keeps his personal distance, never overtly revealing the fact of, or circumstances of his own study. Even Robert E. “Bob” Brown—perhaps THE most avid bi-musicality apostle of Mantle Hood, and whose 1965 UCLA PhD dissertation (based on South Indian field research 1957-59) is based primarily on his mrdangam lessons—scarcely situates himself, apart from this brief statement in his “Preface”:

The teaching of drum playing is an oral tradition, and even the few works that have attempted to present some of the traditional material in printed form require considerable practical experience for their interpretation (Brown 1965, x-xi)

The author began with practical study by learning to play the initial lessons, one of the most reliable means of acquiring an understanding of performance techniques (xi)

He gives few or no details of the lessons themselves; rather, he concentrates on the product, rather than the process.

Harold S. Powers engaged in dissertation research (on the South Indian raga system) in Madras even earlier, in 1952-54. In later years, as a leading scholar of mode (among other things), he did not consider himself an ethnomusicologist. Nonetheless, he addresses in his preface the question of practical study in considerably more personal detail than does “openly ethnomusicological” Bob Brown, more than ten years later:

My approach … has been to study Carnatic music from the inside as much as possible. In the present stage of our techniques for describing and analyzing alien music it would seem that, if possible, one ought to make some attempt to learn the musical language one attempts to describe …. (Powers 1958, iii)

[M]y primary overall source is, heretically enough, what I myself learned from my teachers in a practical way. (iv)

Charles Seeger later echoes this “musical language” analogy in his preface to Hood’s The Ethnomusicologist:

[The] distinguishing mark of the second epoch [i.e., after the first, namely the “armchair” ethnomusicology of the first half of the twentieth century] is the learning to make, that is, becoming reasonably participatory in, the music one is studying. … Where speech knowledge fails, music knowledge can be gained only by the making of it. One does, after all, expect a foreign student of French or Chinese to be reasonably fluent in those languages. (Seeger 1971, vii)  

In early issues of Ethnomusicology Newsletter and its successor Ethnomusicology [Journal], correspondents tend to emphasize the materials they have collected. We do see some accounts of performances, as in this 1956 Ethnomusicology Newsletter “Notes and News” item (# 6, January 1956):

Report of the “First Regional Music Conference of Southeast [sic; had delegates and papers from S. Asia and E. Asia] Asia,” in Manila 8/29-31/55 sent by Malm. (p.8) ….
Many of these lectures were illustrated by live music; Mr. Ahmad (for a paper entitled “Music and Folkore of East Pakistan”), for example, won the audience as much with his voice and the drum accompaniment of Mr. Hussain as with his erudition.

While the roles of explicator/scholar and performers here are clearly quite different, and seem to represent different social strata (i.e., scholar—whether native or foreign—illustrates with native performer), we do see in this statement some acknowledgement of “another” way of presenting, another form of discourse co-equal to verbal discourse.

“Advent”: The Bi-musicality Era

This “other form of discourse”—performance, valued in and of itself, independent of its utility, rather than purely as an analysis technique—(as we saw with Herzog) is most often associated with the lineages of Jaap Kunst and his student Mantle Hood. One of the first scholarly acknowledgments of this direction, at least in the United States, was this “Notes and News” item from Kunst in Ethno-Musicology Newsletter Number 2, August 1954:

At the beginning of 1953 I was named Lecturer at the University of Amsterdam …. For the Philips firm I have made, with the help of some Javanese young people and the gamelan group “Babar Layar,” an LP record (00165). This gamelan study group … composed 90% of Dutch young people is going strong and plays regularly under the direction of its founder Bernard Ijzerdraat. Last year it took the 3rd prize at the international eisteddfod at Llangollen (Wales), and sometimes its playing is broadcast to Java itself where its performances  are much appreciated. (Kunst 1954, 3)

Note his search for validation through presenting their accomplishments “to the world,” and through the affirmation that “the natives” appreciate their efforts. The latter remains a preoccupation for ethnomusicologists and others involved with teaching and performing the music and dance of other cultures:

We are … interpreters, creators, re-creators, and molders of those cultures in the academic world. If, however, we are thus auteurs, we are often very nervous ones, mentally looking over our shoulders at those from whom we learned. (Solís 2004a, 11)

Hood, who began teaching at UCLA in 1956, reflected this concern with “native legitimization” in a later issue of Ethnomusicology Newsletter:

A little less than two years ago an extra-curricular study group in Javanese music, known as Gamelan Udan Mas, was formed [at UCLA]. There is not time to discuss the training and progressive development of Gamelan Udan Mas nor the reactions of a dozen different audiences (from members of the American Musicological Society to President Sukarno himself …. (Hood 1957, 6)

In this same article, Hood discussed his new graduate program, making one of the first direct published allusions to performance as a co-equal research tool:

When the time comes that the individual [ethnomusicology grad student] seeks a specific area of concentration, genuine enthusiasm for his subject is essential. There are unmistakable signs of real enthusiasm: a certain zeal in collecting records, ferreting out local authentic performs, locating an authentic instrument and a qualified teacher, attending rehearsals, first as an auditor and then as a performer. (Hood 1957, 6)

Hood provided the most potent counterweight to the venerable “comparative musicology” method, with his emphasis on deep immersion in the cultural languages of one or two traditions.

Hood primarily conceived of musical performance as a means for ethnomusicologists and other outsiders to find their ways further “inside,” in the study of “exotic” cultures. Around this same time Barbara B. Smith, at the University of Hawaii, was instituting an ethnomusicology program in which performance also played a vital part. Her motivation was somewhat different: influenced by, largely targeted at, and drawing from the rich variety of local ethnic populations, she “realized music’s potential to validate cultural identity” (Trimillos 2004, 25), and “its relationship to a person’s sense of self-identity” (Smith 1987, 207). Moreover, in her words:

Gradually, as our program in ethnomusicology developed at the University of Hawaii, I came to consider the cultural experience of learning to perform music of another culture from a member of that culture to be as important as the musical experience per se. (Smith 1987, 205)

Its prominent Javanese gamelan program, initiated by Hardja Susilo in 1971, notwithstanding, University of Hawaii ethnomusicology performance is thus centered on ethnomusicological activism: the local needs of its proximate Asian and Pacific population cultures.

Ensemble Choices

The subjects ethnomusicologists research may be richly diverse, but their range of academic world music ensembles seems much more limited. Asian, West African, and Latin ensembles predominate. Most are relatively large, offering opportunities for as many students as possible—and the increasingly precious and sought-after student credit hours they bring with them—to participate. In an age of MOOC (“massive open online courses”), music administrators value such ensembles all the more. Most music departments face “labor inefficiency” problems, in that tenured/tenure track studio professors meet students individually for lessons. Thus, we see such constructed traditions as the “Indian ensemble” (see Marcus 2004 for an extended discussion of this ensemble, actually born in post-Independence India): a soloist-cum-accompaniment chamber ensemble reinterpreted as the textural and economic equivalent of American “class piano,” “class voice,” or “class guitar.”

Most ensembles come from theorized music traditions, with established systems of pedagogy. Most also feature a range of performance roles. Many provide both logical entrance points for newcomers (sarons in Javanese gamelan, guitars in mariachi ensembles, etc.), and exciting challenges for the ambitious (Javanese gambang or gendèr, mariachi guitarrón, and so forth). These criteria essentially render such ensembles as the exciting and pyrotechnic Burmese hsaing waing, most of whose roles are highly virtuosic, much less practical.

Ensemble choices tend to reflect political and scholarly trends: as befits the early influence of founding father Mantle Hood, gamelans abound, as glittering and conspicuous sonic and visual symbols of “The Other.” In the 1960s-80s, these were mostly Javanese (Hood’s particular scholarly preoccupation). More recently we have seen many Balinese gamelans established. The reasons for this are at least twofold: Balinese gamelan scholarship is now much more prominent than before; also, the Balinese tradition offers great textural and dynamic contrasts, highly challenging interlocking pyrotechnics, and a great deal of up-front excitement. The subtle and dignified gradualism of much Javanese performance may (or may not) be a less immediately acquired taste.

Ghanaian Ewe (see Locke 2004) ensembles with an admixture of Ghanaian Ashanti dominated the West African scene from the 1960s; the latter likely acquired additional cachet by virtue of Hood’s having embraced that tradition as his “second area.” Now djembe drums of Senegal abound, offering a more technically accessible and therefore more “democratic” medium that has proliferated worldwide across many class and ethnic categories, not to mention infiltrating many non-African genres.

The increasing popularity of pan-Andean ensembles, including drums, guitars and creolized Hispanic lutes, panpipes, notched vertical flutes, and other instruments, reflects the popularity of Andean research. The association of this music with Latin American leftist-liberal political movements is also attractive to many ethnomusicologists. These ensembles offer the usual hierarchy of technical challenges, and one other desirable trait shared by a number of others: the possibility of nearly infinite expansion. In other words, one can add another guitar to a mariachi band; another saron or two to a gamelan; another ad hoc set of sticks or wood block or some other percussion item to a rumba group; another sitar to an “Indian ensemble”; these will not affect the ensemble in any fundamental way, and you can keep expanding your student enrollments.

The more common ensembles tend to belong to “great traditions” with clear familial ties across broad regions. Gamelans, for example, are clearly related historically and to some extend in performance practice to other Southeast Asian percussion ensembles; music makers in Arab, Turkish, Persian, Central Asian, and to some extent Balkan traditions can and do jam together. Hindustani and Karnatak musicians have for years blended ideas and played together. West African percussion ensembles share basic structural and communicative elements with each other, and with Afro-Latin ensembles. Relatively few ethnomusicologist-directors have built upon limited “local” traditions (which, at any rate, tend to be less known, less iconic, and thus less attractive to the uninitiated), regardless of their own personal research allegiances.

The Ethnomusicologist as Public Solo Performer

In what seems to me a somewhat waggish understatement, Jon Baily states that “there are some ethnomusicologists who have continued playing their ‘adopted’ music long after the fieldwork experience ….” (Baily 2008, 127). At some point, performance study which likely began as an analytical technique developed into support for performance for its own sake, as a virtuous activity.

Harold Powers, in the preface to his 1958 dissertation on the South Indian system, stated,

From the start I took it as my fundamental operational premise that I would learn to become as competent a practical and theoretical musician as possible, making use of any and every means to this end. (1958, i)

I hasten to add that I make no claims to being a finished artist in Carnatic music in any way. I went a considerable distance towards “Indianizing” my musical behavior, but my accent in the Carnatic musical language was never quite perfect, nor did I achieve as much fluency as I could have wished for; and all imaginable advantage of Western training and study, however translatable, will not make up for the years of practice and experience in India which I lack. (iii)

Having said this, it might seem somewhat surprising that he somewhat later adds

The final practical result of my stay in India was a group of three public performances … [including singing] for about twenty-five minutes in one of the
evening concerts …. I sang for about an hour at the USIS library in Madras; … In April 1954 the Krishan Gana Sabha … was kind enough to arrange a hall for me … and there I gave a full-length program (about three hours). (ii-iii)

However, it would appear that the chutzpah for such public performance, in the face of his own protestations of his limitations, actually derives from his research methodology. He states that, after sessions with his principal teacher, he would “go home and practice what I had learned and noted until I could sing it to his satisfaction” (iv), and

sung the piece in question not only for the teacher but also for at least one other person, to make sure I had learned and was performing a reasonably acceptable and conventional [emphasis mine] rendition of the piece. (vi)

We can interpret this, on the fact of it, as a sort of more elaborate version of Herzog’s analytical methodology in his African drum signaling: as a sort of quality control, to help insure accuracy of analysis, especially insofar as Powers’ ultimate aim was an analytical dissertation, and not performance per se as a raison d’être. His quest for the “acceptable and conventional” is quite consistent with ethnomusicologists’ preoccupation with the “typical,” as opposed to the music historian’s quest for the “extraordinary.”

Mantle Hood, in his landmark and oft-cited 1960 article “The Challenge of Bi-Musicality,” foregrounds performance as a sine qua non, and as a basis for all musical study. In his words,

The basic study and training which develops musicality is known by several names: musicianship, fundamentals of music, solfeggio. I have never heard a musician suggest that this sine qua non might be by-passed, that the beginner should start with musical analysis or criticism. (Hood 1960, 55)

This makes sense, in that everyone’s musical life begins in this way: we all have begun by singing, with piano lessons, violin lessons, etc., long before we proceeded to music theory and history. All this emphasizes performance as a means to an end: (music) culture competence. This apparently intuitive step would not, of course, have been as “intuitive” earlier in the century, for both the “colonial” reasons I’ve mentioned earlier, and because earlier comparative ideas were now, under Hood’s influence, giving way to intensive immersion in a single culture, which one came to “know” broadly and deeply. In referring to the rules governing improvisational skill within a given tradition, Hood declares that

These can be consciously learned but can be artistically used only when the whole tradition has been assimilated. This means an understanding of and an insight into not only music and the related arts but also language, religion, customs, history—in other words, the whole identity of the society of which music is only one, but one very important, part. (1960, 58) 

On the face of it, Hood arguably still conceived of the process of performance as a necessary research tool. For the WEAM (Western European Art Music) community, however, performance is a central activity. In the WEAM conservatory/school of music tradition, musical performance, and the studios and ensembles which they support, and which support them are the hegemonic nucleus out of which all the other “areas” (music education, music history, and so forth) grow.

Hood in the same article opens the door for performance expertise beyond that required for “mere” competency, in what is a seminal statement for some, and a subject of controversy for others:

At this point we might ask just how far a Western musician can go along the road of Oriental musical studies. My answer to this question is “Just as far as his objective takes him.” If his desire is to comprehend [emphasis Hood’s] a particular Oriental musical expression so that his observations and analysis as a musicologist do not prove to be embarrassing, he will have to persist in practical studies until his basic musicianship is secure. If he chooses to become a professional instrumentalist or singing competing with others in the country of his chosen study (and this possibility seems to me remote), he will have to persist in practical studies considerably beyond the requirements of basic musicianship until he attains professional status. Perhaps the best answer to the question “How far can he go” is “How much time does he have?” (Hood 1960, 58) 

The late Jon Higgins exemplified these developments, which grew out of his 1960s Wesleyan University doctoral field research in Karnatak vocal music. He engaged in considerable public concertizing, including widely released recordings, which constituted a sort of ongoing career track as part of his wider research and administrative career in ethnomusicology. This likely began as a tool of analysis (cf. Herzog and Powers) as well as a public validation of his developing competence (as with Powers).

Note, incidentally, that Hood limited his statement to “Oriental” (a now discredited term then still au courant) art musics, which were at the time—before Hood initiated his Ghanaian Ashanti fieldwork—the main focus of the UCLA program. In the first part of his statement he adheres to the more established competency-cum-analysis paradigm of Herzog, Powers, and others. Many in and around the field of ethnomusicology who have sought careers or individual reputation as performers, have done so via West, South, Southwest Asia, and Japan. These musics are in general highly theorized, with systemic pedagogies, often including clear, progressive levels of competency, prominent soloist or soloist-cum-accompaniment textures, and opportunity for virtuosic differentiation from the “ordinary.” Some common media include West Asian ‘ud, buzuq, santur, etc; Japanese koto and shakuhachi; North and South Indian vocal, sitar, sarod, flute, veena, mrdangam, tabla, and others. The pedagogic systems include Japanese ryu (guilds), with their equivalents of the martial arts “belt colors” competency scale; the Persian dastgah/radif accretion of gusheh modal melody types; and the South Indian body of established compositions offering a continuum from entirely pre-composed models at one extreme (i.e., the varnam) through decreasing proportions of pre-composition to “improvisation” (another highly negotiable concept) within strict rules of procedure (alapana) at the other.

Some prominent performers are independent agents, only loosely connected with “mainstream” academia. Their careers move among “world music conservatories,” “world music camps,” instrument manufacturers, artist residencies, and general gigging in their chosen media. In such world music conservatories as the Ali Akbar College of Music in its various locations, personal public performance, and the teaching of performance are primary conditions for employment and retention. In more research-oriented institutions such as universities, employment/retention criteria usually emphasize publication over performance. Some ethnomusicologists have, however, helped re-define performance as a suitably “scholarly” activity, worthy of serious consideration in tenure and promotion decisions. They include such exceptional performers as mbira maven Paul Berliner, doyen of Middle Eastern music studies Ali Jihad Racy, Ravi Shankar sitar student Stephen Slawek, rubab of Afghanistan performer John Baily, and others. These folks have also published heavily, which in an “academic” sense lends legitimacy to their extensive concertizing. Thanks to them and others, many more tenured/tenure-track ethnomusicologists now include such activities in their evaluation portfolios. Their WEAM studio colleagues, of course, have always done the same, albeit with the weighting reversed: more emphasis on performance. Music administrators have learned to utilize and welcome the publicity ethnomusicologist/performers, like their studio colleagues, bring to institutions. William P. Malm, first-generation Hood student and founder of the University of Michigan ethnomusicology program, engaged widely in highly entertaining and enlightening Japanese music lecture-demonstrations from the late 1950s on. These were among the trademarks of his distinguished career, and much encouraged by his university.

Most ethnomusicologists do not pursue these virtuosic “star” performance tracks. Rather, they direct and participate in the sorts of large ensembles I’ve delineated earlier, which offer “transformative” opportunities to as many students as possible. Note Bruno Nettl’s schemata of a typical music school–emic hierarchy, in his classic Heartland Excursions:

Within the Music Building, the center, the people who do, is largely comprised of the performing faculty and student majors, and the periphery consists of those who—broadly speaking—teach without performing, ordinary faculty and students of music education, musicology, and music theory. (Nettl 1995, 57) 

Ethnomusicologists in great numbers clearly contest such a scheme. This sort of dichotomy between “academics” (a term absurdly often applied only to some in the musical “academy”) and “performers,” clearly does not fit many ethnomusicologists. Their principal job descriptions are nearly always of the “classroom/research” variety. However, they may have extensive and intensive performance experience in their research traditions, as well as others (typically including WEAM) in which they may have participated along the way. Teaching an ensemble based in one these is increasingly a condition of employment or an added enhancement to the vitae they use to capture the job offer.

In such cases, because the students upon whom they draw to fill these ensembles usually have little or no experience, nor the required instruments, the ethnomusicologist must assume the role both of “studio” instructor and ensemble “conductor” (Solís 2004a, 6). She thus often de facto finds herself astride not just two, but three “divisions” of the school: musicology/music history, ensemble, and studio.

Whither “Authenticity”?

A question hovering over the entire enterprise of public presentations has been its validity at any level for ethnomusicologists. “Are non-native musicians who succeed in developing careers really appreciated for their artistry,” some ask, “or is it the novelty which brings them success?” Not an easy question to answer, since the question of artistry in any tradition, whether for “natives” or not, is at best a very sticky business (see Rice 2011).

But as I noted earlier, far more ethnomusicologists are involved with ensembles than in solo “virtuosic” activities. Most of us who direct these ensembles enjoy the musical collaboration, as with any ensemble playing. Jeff Todd Titon nicely articulates the pleasures of that collaboration:

I take people making music as my paradigm case of musical “being-in-the world.” For me, making music is incomplete when I do it by myself; it is completed in a social group when I make music with other. (Titon 2008, 31)

Another rationale for such collaboration arises from a problem articulated by J. Lawrence Witzleben, who references his Javanese gamelan ensemble in Hong Kong:

As a teacher of Javanese gamelan, I introduce the music to absolute beginners with no knowledge of gamelan music and no direct aural experience of the tradition other than hearing themselves. (Witzleben 2004, 143)

Ethnomusicologist professor-directors who perform with these groups feel that their participation helps counteract this problem, by offering ongoing performance modeling. Moreover, some or many may feel, as I do, that this also provides a more egalitarian, participatory alternative to the sort of “industrial” model found in music school hierarchies (Nettl 1995, 50-53), as well as in the absolutist “conductor/CEO-cum-workers and middle manager” structures of large WEAM ensembles. Inherent hierarchies and authoritarian forces permeate Western academic music life, from the early grades, to the highest professional echelons. The majority of ethnomusicologists have passed through this system. However, being typically among the most liberal of liberal academics, many have subsequently developed instincts (pace the life-changing music teachers of their youth), which may conflict emotionally and politically with that early background.

In this issue (see his “Second Thoughts”) Bruno Nettl describes his initial reservations about learning, teaching, and performing Asian canonic musics. While stating that, “some of these worries seem to me to have been justified,” he goes on to affirm that “they [the worries] … have been vastly exceeded by the benefits of performance study as a major factor in education and fieldwork.” Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to examine some of his original concerns, which others have also expressed.

Would we be presenting [for example] East Asian ensembles to American and European audiences with the modest degree of expertise comparable, say, to having Western orchestral music represented in other cultures by seventh-grade orchestras? (Nettl 2014)

The question is completely valid, especially if one concentrates on the external presentational aspect. Moreover, the questions not only of quality, but also “correctness,” and “authenticity” (however defined) inevitably arise. If we are committed to “correctness,” however, we have a formidable and perhaps unachievable task. How, after all, having already transplanted them into very different soil, can we really make our gamelans “Javanese,” our percussion ensembles “Ewe,” and so forth? How far are we willing to go? In the words of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett:

Where does the object begin and where does it end? … Shall we exhibit the cup with the saucer, the tea, the cream and sugar, the spoon, the napkin and placemat, the table and chair, the rug? Where do we stop? Where do we make the cut? (1991, 388) 

I contend, if one’s goal is primarily external presentation to others, that the task of “accurate” representation is unwinnable: the more earnestly we attempt to present what we perceive to be “accurate” cultural context and practices to our audiences (down to the level of literal imitation of music and contextual musical culture, including the costuming and mise-en-scène which some call “ethnodrag,” even facial expressions and bodily comportment, etc.) the more likely we are to be accused of naïve imitation or neocolonialism. And we are, as per Nettl’s earlier quote, open to accusations of trying to pass off “seventh grade orchestras” on the public. To be quite fair: many world music performing groups in America and abroad achieve far more than that. Some (like the San Francisco Bay Areas’ renowned Balinese gamelan Sekar Jaya and a few others) perform at what many consider good or excellent “native” levels.

Most in that category tend to be long standing community groups with a relatively high rate of continuing retention. Even those college/university ensembles associated with large ethnomusicology graduate programs face constant eternally green student musicians and considerable turnover, few continuing beyond the limits of their graduate on-campus residencies. Our difficulties are compounded by the fact that as directors we do it all: we are obliged to represent all the instrumental, vocal, and choreographic abilities required within a complex, multitasking performance ensemble. WEAM university orchestra, chorus, or concert band conductors, on the other hand, are not required to teach flutter tonguing, vocal and col legno technique, and so forth. They have the luxury of working with

student performers already trained in vocal production or instrumental technique [who] rehearse and polish a selection of composed, notated works conceived in a general musical system familiar to the performers since childhood. (Vetter 2004, 117)

We who do not have this luxury are thus, out of necessity, auteurs who interpret, create, re-create, and mold other cultures in the academic world. This affords, for those who wish, another way to deal with representational pressure. In the spirit of contemporary scholarly reflexivity, we can fully acknowledge ourselves “as social actors within the cultures [we] study” (Cooley 1997, 4). We can fully recognize the fact that we express ourselves at least as much as we do the received tradition.
Ethnomusicologists handle this in a variety of ways. Roger Vetter, having initiated the Javanese gamelan at Grinnell College, came to adjust his initially ambitious goals, one of which was that his students would “understand the workings of central Javanese gamelan through becoming competent performers of their music” (2004, 117). By the time he wrote this, however, twenty years after that resolution, his revised aims were quite different. He had substituted a new set which emphasized internal transformations over externals, and which extended beyond reproduction and conservation. One was to

[p]rovide students with a face-to-face long-term interactive exercise in which they can experience a sense of collective accomplishment achieved through cooperative effort. (2004, 118)

Vetter pursues these goals, while indeed doing his best to faithfully “reproduce” and “conserve” the Javanese tradition he reveres. Scott Marcus, in his Middle Eastern ensembles at University of California-Santa Barbara, engages in a sort of ethnomusicological activism, creating non-traditional syntheses in musical repertoires. He brings together cultures that, politically speaking, often refuse to speak to one another: Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Arab, Kurdish, Persian, and so forth, creating the sort of “hands across the sea” ideal world of which most of us have dreamt and may still dream.

Michael Bakan, in discussing his fieldwork travails in Balinese gamelan beleganjur traditional drumming, speaks of a teaching/learning process which he perceives to be neither Balinese nor Western, but rather a sort of “liminal” (1999, 292) ethnomusicological space. Rather than pursuing an elusive “-emic” understanding of our chosen “Other” traditions, a task he considers futile, he prefers to pursue what he terms a “more ‘localized’ (i.e., synthesis of his and his teachers’) understanding of the intercultural, idiosyncratic music world [of a given study at hand]” (1999, 295).

Some ethnomusicologist-ensemble directors move beyond tradition, seeking to expand, for various reasons, parameters of repertoire and performance practice. Simone Krüger speaks of her experiences with the gamelan program at York University, the first in the UK:

Neil Sorrell at York University encouraged students freely to explore the instruments of the gamelan instead of adhering to the “traditional” ways of transmission, namely learning the two tuning systems slendro and pelog, followed by learning to play a Javanese piece. (Krüger 2009, 71).

In “Community of Comfort: Negotiating a World of ‘Latin Marimba’” (Solís 2004a), I describe why and how I found myself over the years constructing a new, much more eclectic marimba tradition out of the Chiapan roots I revere.

Nothing about this seems remarkable to many culture bearers of these traditions. Ethnomusicologists, on the other hand, have a long tradition of acting “more Catholic than the Pope,” as it were. In the words of Trimillos, the non-native teacher,

[b]ecause he cannot embody the cultural credibility of the native teacher … must establish his credibility in other ways. One strategy is to emphasize older repertory and recognized aspects of “tradition” …. Innovation and the performance of newer compositions tend to be secondary. (Trimillos 2004, 43)

We often, thus, embody “marginal” retentions of older practices long discarded back in the “field country.” There, musicians may be highly enthusiastic about change and innovation, and much less concerned with “purity” and “authenticity” than some of the ethnomusicologists studying their traditional musics.


My discussion about performance has involved examining a complex dance around the subject, a “choreography of counter-intuition,” as it were. We ethnomusicologists are fierce apostles of music as sound and as process; the field of ethnomusicology emerged, and still exists, partly as a reaction to the concept of music as notation. Nettl plays devil’s advocate in expressing this philosophical divide:

The academics [non ethnomusicologists?] among us can hardly conceive of discussing music without knowledge of a single, authoritative, visible version. “I can’t say a thing until I’ve seen the score,” critics may say upon hearing a new piece, because the true representation of music is the written form; but they ought perhaps to be saying … “I can’t say a thing until I’ve heard it.” (Nettl 2005b, 74)

Although this idea that sound is primary now seems completely intuitive to most contemporary ethnomusicologists, we have seen how long it took for us to completely involve ourselves with actual sound production as a research methodology. It took quite a while longer to acknowledge the “personal” in that sound production.

The trajectory of these developments reflects changing scholarly philosophies. Such fathers of the field as Hornbostel and his collaborators were concerned with uniqueness, “purity” and “authenticity,” and the desire to preserve traditions, all of which they perceived to be in danger of disappearance under the malevolent influence of the West. They devoted their energies to collecting, archiving, and trying to make some synthesized sense of the diversity of their acquisitions. Most typically of the “armchair ethnomusicologist” variety, having little contact with the multifarious cultures they mediated archivally, their preoccupations were with “product.” Even when they did fieldwork, colonial period sociocultural barriers (whether acknowledged or not), as well as their desire to retain an “objective” scholarly distance from their subjects, rendered any intimate master-pupil relationship out of the question.

Even well into the 1950s (in the flagship journal Ethnomusicology, for example) researchers dealt with “stuff” researchers had collected. During the 1950s, ethnomusicologists began turning their attention to highly theorized Asian art musics, with their codified, graded pedagogical and virtuosic challenges. The route to analyzing and understanding processes of competency and artistry in these traditions inevitably passed through personal study, thus eroding distance.

The scholarly epistemologies of Charles Seeger, Mantle Hood, and Hood’s many influential disciples drew upon speech analogies. The term “Bi-Musicality,” while suggesting somewhat strained analogies with language ability, provided an easily identified catchword for the general idea of musical performance competency as a methodology. What remained was for researchers to acknowledge their personal roles. Robert E. Brown, probably Hood’s most fervent apostle of performance as a central methodology, retained a certain scholarly distance from the description of his own 1950s PhD field research lesson material. Twenty years later Paul Berliner, with a PhD from the Wesleyan University graduate program Brown had made the flagship of bi-musicality, published The Soul of Mbira (1981), a landmark in its acknowledgment of the personal dynamics of the student-teacher relationship.

The final step of this “external to internal” journey was for subsequent scholars to query the very “sacrosanct” parameters of their chosen traditions. In the spirit of 1980s, 1990s, and twenty-first-century reflexivity, scholars embraced another important intuitivity: namely, that it is us, as much as them whom we are expressing in our performance. We can (in contemporary self-help-speak) “give our selves permission” to express these traditions as we feel best. Although, having imported and transplanted these traditions, we long ago entered a liminal “ethnomusicological space,” we are now more free to openly acknowledge that fact. In this sense we can now admit that not only are we “learning their song,” but also that “the song is us.”



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Last modified on Thursday, 07/03/2019

Ted Solís

Ted Solis is Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology in the School of Music, Arizona State University. He is the editor of Performing Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Musics (University of California Press, 2004) and is co-editing Ethnomusicological Lives; Growing Up And Into A Profession (University of Illinois Press), the first major “ethnomusicology of ethnomusicologists.”

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